Thursday 25 November 1999, Institute of International Visual Arts, London.
By Coco Fusco
CF: How did Electronic Disturbance Theatre come about?
RD: I will respond with a story from sub-comandante Marcos. Hola.
Bienvenidos, hermanos y hermanas. Welcome sisters and brothers, I’m going to
tell you a little story, una pequeña historia: Pedrito (a Tojolabal, two and
a half years old, born during the first Intergalactic) is playing with a
little car with no wheels or body. In fact, it appears to me that what
Pedrito is playing with is a piece of that wood they call "cork", but he has
told me very decisively that it is a little car and that it is going to
Margaritas to pick up passengers. It is a gray and cold January morning and
we are passing through this village which is today electing the delegates
(one man and one woman) who will be sent to the March meeting. The village is
in assembly when a Commander-type plane, blue and yellow, from the Army
Rainbow Task Force and a pinto helicopter from the Mexican Air Force, begin a
series of low over flights above the community. The assembly does not stop;
instead those who are speaking merely raise their voices. Pedrito is fed up
with having the artillery aircraft above him, and he goes, fiercely, in
search of a stick inside his hut. Pedrito comes out of his house with a piece
of wood, and he angrily declares that "I'm going to hit the airplane because
it's bothering me a lot." I smile to myself at the child's ingenuousness.
The plane makes a pass over Pedrito's hut, and he raises the stick and waves
it furiously at the war plane. The plane then changes its course and leaves
in the direction of its base. Pedrito says "There now" and starts playing
once more with his piece of cork, pardon, with his little car. The Sea and I
look at each other in silence. We slowly move towards the stick which
Pedrito left behind, and we pick it up carefully. We analyze it in great
"It's a stick," I say.
"It is," the Sea says.
Without saying anything else, we take it with us. We run into Tacho as we're
leaving. "And that?" he asks, pointing to Pedrito's stick which we had
taken. "Mayan technology," the Sea responds.
Trying to remember what Pedrito did I swing at the air with the stick.
Suddenly the helicopter turned into a useless tin vulture, and the sky became
and the clouds floated by like marzipan.
Muchas gracias, I hope you enjoyed the story. This Mayan technology,
this stick is a metaphor for what Electronic Disturbance Theatre has created
as its performative matrix. The stick represents a third, or a fourth, or
fifth alternative to the apocalyptic or utopian sense of the Internet. Those
of us working in the virtual domain are constantly told to obey the utopian
dream of the wired world where there will be no class, sex and no issues of
identity. Alternatively we are fed the apocalyptic visions of viruses and
Y2K. But, the Zapatistas, using this Mayan technology, advocate another type
of gesture which I would say is related to magical realism.
This realism involves having the knowledge of the dangers that doing such
simple acts such as getting water or going to the next town in Chiapas (a
space under the constant threat by the Mexican’s low-intensity tactics), and
also, knowing that a story or a poetic gestures might be able to get you
around danger – more so than carrying a M-16 with you – the Zapatistas use
the politics of a magical realism that allows them to create these spaces of
invention, intervention, and to allow the world wide networks to witness the
struggle they face on daily. It was the acceptance of digital space by the
Zapatistas in 12 days that created the very heart of this magical realism as
information war. It was this extraordinary understanding of electronic
culture which allowed the Zapatistas on 1 January, 1994, one minute after
midnight just as (NAFTA) a Free Trade Agreement between Canada, U.S.A, and
Mexico went into effect - to jump into the electronic fabric, so to speak,
faster than the speed of light. Within minutes people around the world had
received emails from the first declaration from the Lacandona Jungle. The ne
xt day the autonomous Zapatista zones appeared all over the Internet. It was
considered by the New York Times as the first post-modern revolution. The
American intelligence community called it the first act of social net war.
Remember, that this social net war was based on the simple use of e-mail and
nothing more. Like Pedrito’s "stick" gestures can be very simple and yet
create deep changes in the structures of the command and control societies
that neo-liberalism agenda, like NAFTA, represent.
But, back to your question. How did EDT come about? Digital Zapatismo is
and has been one of the most politically effective uses of the Internet that
we know of since January 1, 1994. Zapatistas have created a counter-distribution
network of information with about 300 or more autonomous nodes of support.
This has enabled the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) to speak to
the world without having to pass through any dominant media filters. The
Zapatistas use of communication on the Internet, e-mail and webpages, created
a electronic force field around these communities in resistance. Which
literally stopped a massive force of men and the latest Drug War technologies
from annihilating the EZLN in a few days. The Zapatistas themselves really
did not expect to live very long after January 1.
When the communiqués signed by Subcommandante Marcos were distributed
globally through the Net. They began to flow between pre-existing anti-NAFTA
and other newly formed activist listservs, newsgroups, and personal Cc:
lists, news, reports, analyses, announcements about demonstrations, and calls
for intercontinental gatherings spread throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia,
Africa, and Australia. By the summer of 94 we began to hear the Zapatistas
use the terms "intercontinental networks of struggle" and "intercontinental
networks of resistance."
This movement of information through these various Zapatistas networks of
resistance can be said to have occurred via a strange chaos moving
horizontally, non-linearly, and over many sub-networks. Rather than operating
through a central command structure in which information filters down from
the top in a vertical and linear manner - the model of radio and television
broadcasting - information about the Zapatistas on the Internet has moved
laterally from node to node.
The primary use of the Internet by the global pro-Zapatista movement has been
as a communication tool. However particularly since the Acteal Massacre in
Chiapas at the end of 1997 in which 45 indigenous people were killed, the
Internet has increasingly been used not only as site or a channel for
communication, but also as a site for direct action and electronic civil
Beta actions of electronic civil disobedience occurred early in 1998.
Information about the Acteal Massacre, and announcements of Mexican consulate
and embassy protests, was transmitted rapidly over the Net. The largest
response was a street protest, drawing crowds of between 5,000 and 10,000 in
places such as Spain and Italy. But there were also calls for actions in
on-line communities. On the low end of digital activism people sent large
amounts of email protest to selected email targets of the Mexican government.
The Anonymous Digital Coalition, a group based in Italy, issued a plan for
virtual sit-ins on five web sites of Mexico City financial corporations. They
issued information about the time zones so people could act together when it
was 10:00 a.m. in Mexico City. They instructed people to use their Internet
browsers to repeatedly reload the web sites of these financial institutions.
The idea was that repeated reloading of the web sites would block those web
sites from so called legitimate use. This idea was the jump off point for the
Zapatista FloodNet which automated the reload function to happen every 3
seconds. Which was created by the Electronic Disturbance Theater. The group
is composed of myself and net artists, Carmin Karasic, Brett Stalbaum, and
Stefan Wray, an activist and media scholar.
CF: EDT’s actions are passed through an artist-driven server called The
Thing. You have characterized this server as a form of social sculpture.
RD: As a net performer I was interested in a matrix that would articulate
social issues as well as performative issues with and within the parameters
of code. I was interested in the possibility of agit -prop theatre on-line.
But I needed to have an infrastructure to stage and create virtual
performances. In the early 1990s artists did not have access to network
technology as readily as we do at the end of the nineties. I was in
Tallahassee, Florida, during the 80’s where I was a member of Critical
Art Ensemble (The group that developed the idea of Electronic Civil
Disobedience), and I heard that in New York there were artists who
were trying to create online communities. So I came to New
York and the main community I found was bbs.thing.net which was started in
1991 by Wolfgang Staehle. He saw the emergence of pre-web electronic
communities called bulletin board systems (BBS) as a continuation of social
The BBS (http://bbs.thing.net) offered arts communities ways to establish
themselves, to send information to one another and also to conceive of new
artistic practices deriving from conceptualism and from performance.
When I arrived at The Thing in New York, Wolfgang Staehle said, "Welcome to
The Thing. There are a bunch of machines here, go sit down, Ricardo, and
start learning and I'm not going to help you." I spent two years gathering
information through these communities. This server became the main platform for
the Electronic Disturbance Theatre's use of the Zapatista Floodnet
system, which creates a disturbance online that, for lack of a better term,
could be characterized as a virtual sit-in software.
CF: Can you explain a little bit about how you conceive of EDT work as
RD: Augusto Boal, who theorized and performed what he calls "invisible
theater" once argued that middle class theater was able to produce complete
images of the world because it existed within a totalized social mirror of
production. Other sectors of society that wanted to create a different kind
of reflection could only produce incomplete performances that pointed towards
something beyond what already exists. There is a history of the theater of
this type of critical social performance; the theater of Erwin Piscator who
just read newspapers on the street or recreated the stories on the streets
for people passing by; Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater, the Living Theater,
and Teatro Campesino working with Cesar Chavez, etc. Each of these groups
created gestures that worked to literally implode every-day street realities,
new theatrical modes of presentation and direct political manifestation.
These type of agit-prop groups pointed to the possibility of new forms of
the performative matrix that could be translated onto the digital stage. That
the techniques to create social drama or civil drama could be once again
developed in this new space. More recent groups such as Gran Fury created
what the government called riots. Nonetheless, they used very stylized type
of gestures and by developing a particular look, color of clothing, T-shirts,
gestures, like Die Ins, they created a new type of direct action theater on
This is a history of performance that EDT continues. What I am interested in
are practices that break with traditional performance art or traditional
theater, and that more importantly, reflect a critique and discontent by a
community. Now, activist, direct action performers, or more traditional forms
of agit-prop theater, can chose to use the spectacle of collective action
that is visible such a street action, or they can chose to be invisible
performances of digital gestures, such as the uploading the names of the
victims of the Acteal massacre into Mexican government or Pentagon servers.
CF: I wouldn't call your Acteal action invisible, I would just call it
abstract. This is perhaps the biggest conceptual leap a viewer of your
work must make, if that viewer is conditioned by the conventional of theatre
from the flesh world. The performance language EDT uses doesn't look like
live theatre because it's not mimetic. We expect to see a play unfold before
our eyes. Even most experiments with Internet theatre involving avatars
attempt at some level to reproduce the visual codes of theatre, cinema and
television while the role of the director and the actors gets splintered and
distributed among the participants. But, as you walk me through a FloodNet
Action - all I’m seeing as a record of mass activities is are lines at the
bottom of the screen. The moving lines to me resemble the cyphers of audio editing
programs that visualize the length and depth of sound. What the lines in fact
are is a record of virtual presence with actual repercussions.
I’d like to consider your work with EDT in relationship to a specifically
Latin America genealogy. There are several examples of performance art from
the 1970s and '80s that was designed to take place in the street to
reappropriate public space during political periods of extreme repression. I
am thinking here of the emergence of the Chilean avanzada during the Pinochet
dictatorship, and the street actions of carried out by several collectives;
the Grupos in Mexico during the same period that involved performances in
public places and that formed a delayed response to the massacre of
Tlatelolco, and work by The Border Art Workshop/El Taller de Arte Fronterizo.
In a sense, the objective of that work was to point to the absence of civic
life, to force awareness of that absence into the open to engender a dialogue
about how public life had been eviscerated by political power. Can you talk
about how you transposed that dynamic into the domain of the virtual with EDT?
RD: Well we do it through a simple gesture. The public space of
electronic culture as it exists now is through browsers, such as Netscape or
Internet Explorer. An intrinsic component of each of those public spaces or
browsers is the 'reload' button. This reload button allows individuals online
to make sure that the information they're getting on their web page is the
latest information. EDT sees the browser as the public base of the virtual
community. It is the space where communities gather, either to chat, to
exchange information or to put up representations of their cares or concerns
or, in the case of e-commerce, what they're trying to sell you. What EDT has
done is to create an Applet. Brett Stalbaum, one of the members, took this
public function and just added another element. Instead of the user hitting
the reload button, the system automatically turns and refreshes itself the
more people come to the site. The more people enter the Zapatista Floodnet
the faster that refresh or reload button calls on the information the resides
on the government servers on which the Sit-In is taking place over and over.
Each person who joins adds to the speed and number of request for information
from the targeted server.
Through this means EDT creates a mass representation of the community.
This representation constitutes a disturbance on the site. The more hits
there are to President Zedillo’s web site, the more our presence is felt, and
the less functional the government site becomes, until it is eventually
overwhelmed by the public. This disturbance points to the nature of what
public space means and who is allowed to be present in the public space of
the Internet. Our simple gesture is quite simple. What happens when you enter
EDT’s Virtual Sit-in: we request that you disable your Java
is a type of object-oriented programming language, developed from the Java
programming language, that is used in web browsers to control the processing
2 browser. Because of its versatility, it was soon adopted by Microsoft in
keep pace with the increasing demands for greater versatility in page design.
In 1997, the various models of the language were standardized, which led to
problem if one tries to generate broad-based actions over the Internet.
The issue however is not so much the detail of the language itself – what
counts is how the incorporation of a programming language into web browsers
affects the ability of the web to be used as a campaign tool.
CF: How then does this relate to a Floodnet Swarm action?
RD: FloodNet performs automatic reloads of the site in the background,
slowing or halting access to the targeted server. FloodNet also encourages
interaction on the part of individual protesters. Net surfers may voice their
political concerns on a targeted server via the "personal message" form which
sends the surfer's own statement to the server error log. Additionally, a
mouse click on the applet image (containing a representation of the targeted
site), sends a predefined message to the server error log.
The Zapatista FloodNet system advises you that your IP will be
harvested by the government during any FloodNet action. When you click and
enter FloodNet, your name and political position will be
made known to the authorities. This is similar to having your picture
taken during a protest action on the street. There could be possible damage
to your machine that may occur because of your participation in FloodNet
action, just as in a street action the police may come to hurt you. But
during the past FloodNet actions only two individuals have reported their
machines crashing out of 80,000-plus that have participated, and the only
time this happened was when the Department of Defense, the Pentagon attacked
us on September 9th, 1998. The FloodNet also clogs bandwidth, it may make it
difficult for individuals using small pipelines around the world to get
information. FloodNet does not impact the targeted web sites specifically, as
much as it disrupts the traffic going to the targeted web site. Something
similar happens on the street, when individuals find themselves unable to get
to work or buy a newspaper because of an action out on the bridge.
Once you enter FloodNet you see that targeted URL on the bottom three frames.
You begin to see President Zedillo's web site reloading, every
3 to 7 seconds on three different frames. The more people come, the faster
it reloads. This creates a disturbance, a symbolic gesture that is
non-violent. It doesn't break a server necessarily since many such as the
Pentagon are quite robust and expect millions of hits. But FloodNet does
create a sense of solidarity, what I would call 'community of drama' or a
community joined by the magic stick. It also creates a mirror, that brings
real criminal acts into view. This magical stick calls forth the most
aggressive tendencies of the information war community. Take for example the
Department of Defense. They attacked us during the September 9th, 1998 VR
Sit-In that we did during
the Ars Electronica Festival, in Linz, Austria – the DOD used a
counter-hostile Java applet against FloodNet, which is the first offensive
use of information war by a government against a civilian server that we know
of. We believe we should be protected from such actions, that the government
cannot attack civilians using any kind of software or hardware. What has
become apparent is the kind of violence that these information war systems
are now implementing against civilians to control whatever public space there
CF: How does Swarm work? I'm particularly interested in how the Internet
gestures end up on screen as a kind of abstract performance language.
RD: We're just dealing with a browser. In fact, the gesture of reloading
itself, as performance, doesn’t really matter much. The real drama and the
real space of performance comes before and after the action, and follows the
structure of a three act play. In the first act you announce what is going
to happen. The middle act is the actual action itself. The last act is a
gathering of dialogue about what happened – this is where the most
instructive drama occurs. A social drama among different communities – net
activist, net artist, and net hackers. The dot coms and government sites and
also play their parts in this social drama.
The FloodNet gesture allows the social flow of command and control to be
seen directly – the communities themselves can see the flow of power in a
highly transparent manner. During the last act of every action we did, we
would see the endless flow of words come. I would receive e-mail not only
from EDT members, but from people around the world saying I am participating
- what exactly is happening or happened, what is going on in Chiapas. The
e-mail came from around the world. A woman from South Korea, an Aborigine
from Australia - and we began to create a network for a social drama because
they're interested on what is the response would be, what is going on, how
can we help etc. A virtual plaza, a digital situation, is thus generated in
which we all gather and have an encounter, or an Encuentro, as the Zapatistas
would say – about the nature of neo-liberalism in the real world and in
CF: Can you explain the meaning of the visual signs that appear on
screen during a Floodnet action?
RD: While Floodnet action goes on, EDT not only recalls President Zedillo's
web page, but we also call internal searches. For example, we will ask for
the names of the dead, or about the question of human rights in Mexico. We
ask the server the question, "Does human rights exist on President Zedillo's
web site?" And then a 404 file emerges backstage, if you will.
CF: What is a 404?
RD: 404 files are the reports of this mistake or gap or the missing
information in these servers. We ask President Zedillo's server or the
Pentagon's web server 'Where is human rights in your server?" The server then
responds "Human rights not found on this server." We ask "Where is Ana
Hernandez on this server and the server then responds " Ana Hernandez is not
found on this server." This use of the "not found" system, also know as 404
files – is a well known gesture among the net art communities. EDT just
re-focused the 404 function towards a political gesture.
CF: Is Ana Hernandez someone who was killed by the Mexican army?
RD: Yes, she was killed in the Acteal Massacre on December 22, 1997. We
started doing these actions in response to that massacre. One of the artists
working with EDT, Carmen Karasic, wanted to create an electronic monument of
remembrance to those who died. This kind of performance gesture borrows very
much from Conceptual Art. The actual performance may take place in an
invisible area, but at the same time it aggravates and disturbs the
infrastructure of President Zedillo's web site.
CF: What you are doing makes me think of Rachel Whiteread’s casting
negative spaces. In a sense you are operating within a virtual domain, and
pointing to the absence of information, which amounts to an absence of
concern for ethical issues and lives.
RD: Yes, we bear witness to this with a gesture that retraces a Latin
American performance tradition. We are bearing witness to the gap or to the
invisibility that has been caused by the engines of destruction.
CF: When you theorize EDT's practice you often mention connections with
Ancient Greek concepts of the Agora and Demos. How do you envision
virtual performance as a kind of metaphorical speech in light of this
RD: The idea of a virtual republic in Western Civilization can be traced
back to Plato, and is connected to the functions of public space. The
Republic incorporated the central concept of the Agora. The Agora was the
area for those who were entitled to engage in rational discourse of Logos,
and to articulate social policy as the Law, and thus contribute to the
evolution of Athenian democracy. Of course those who did speak were, for the
most part, male, slave-owning and ship owning merchants, those that represented the base of
Athenian power. We can call them Dromos: those that belong the societies of
speed. Speed and the Virtual Republic are the primary nodes of Athenian
democracy – not much different than today. The Agora was constantly being
disturbed by Demos, what we would call those who demonstrate or who move into
the Agora and make gestures. Later on, with the rise of Catholicism – Demos
would be transposed into Demons, those representatives of the lower depths.
Demos did not necessarily use the rational speech of the Agora, they did not
have access to it; instead, they used symbolic speech or a somatic poesis -
Nomos. In the Agora, rational speech is known as Logos. The Demos gesture is
Nomos, the metaphorical language that points to invisibility, that points to the gaps in
the Agora. The Agora is thus disturbed; the rational processes of its codes
are disrupted, the power of speed was blocked. EDT alludes to this history of
Demos as it intervenes with Nomos. The Zapatista FloodNet injects bodies as
Nomos into digital space, a critical mass of gestures as blockage. What we
also add to the equation is the power of speed is now leveraged by Demos via
the networks. Thus Demos_qua_Dromos create the space for a new type of social
drama to take place. Remember in Ancient Greece, those who were in power and
who had slaves and commerce, were the ones who had the fastest ships. EDT
utilizes these elements to create drama and movement by empowering contemporary
groups of Demos with the speed of Dromos – without asking societies of
command and control for the right to do so. We enter the Agora with the
metaphorical gestures of Nomos and squat on high speed lanes of the new
Virtual Republic – this creates a digital platform or situation for a
techno-political drama that reflects the real condition of the world beyond
code. This disturbs the Virtual Republic that is accustomed to the properties
of Logos, the ownership of property, copyright, and all the different
strategies in which they are attempting enclosure of the Internet.
CF: What are some of the responses that EDT has received from the US military
and also from the Mexican government?
RD: These confrontations began when EDT undertook its Swarm performance in
Linz, Austria at Ars Electronica. On Tuesday September 9th, 1998 we started
to do the largest virtual sit-in that we had ever done on Mexican President
Zedillo's web site, the Pentagon and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. That
morning I received a call from someone who I assumed to be representing the
Mexican government who spoke Spanish with a Mexican accent. He said "Is this
Ricardo Dominguez? " I said, "Yes." He said, "We know who you are, we know
where you're at, we know where your family is, we are watching you, do not go
downstairs, do not do your performance, because you know what the
situation is, this is not a game," and then he hung up. I went down and we
did the action anyway, but about three hours later we were attacked. We
didn't know who it was. Hackers had told us the night before that they would
attack us so we thought it might be them. Managers of President Zedillo’s
website had tried to hack us before, so we thought it might be them.
Then we received an e-mail message from www.wired.com, an important on-line
news portal, saying that it was the Department of Defence that had initiated
Floodnet. As a result, the coverage of EDT’s activities by major news media
exploded. An article about us appeared on the front page of The New York
Times, (Hacktivists' of All Persuasions Take Their Struggle to the Web by
Amy Harmon, October 31, 1998). The U.S. military commented in a knee-jerk
manner, 'Well we don't know if what EDT is doing is illegal, but it
certainly is immoral." From that point on we have been in dialogue with the
military, which is very strange for us. I certainly didn't expect it,
neither did any other members of EDT.
The military invited us to do what we call "The National Security Agency
Performance" for some 300 Generals and military men and also NSA people as
well as Congressmen. On September 9, 1999, we did an hour and a half
performance for them. We approached it as theatre. They interrogated us. Of
course they wanted to know who was in charge, how extreme could we possibly
get, what was the future like, what do we expect from the growth of this new
term 'hacktivism' which has emerged as a response to the drama, if you will.
The dialogue with the military continues. Recently I met with naval
intelligence people who showed me their large holographic simulation war
machines. So the Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s performance, even though I
keep thinking that it's going to end, always seems to be spiraling to a new
level. I’ve been asked if I'm concerned that I'm speaking to the military,
and why I don’t worry about what they're attempting to do to us, either by
co-opting or gathering information about us. One of the things about us is
that, unlike hackers, EDT is very transparent. We use our names, people know
who we are and what we do and we always let people know, and this really
disturbs the military. They are modernist at heart; they want secrets, they
want encryption, they want cyber-terrorists, and they want cyber-crime. What
we give them is net art performance that allows everyone to see who the real
CF: EDT also distributes the codes freely, right?
RD: Yes, on January 1st, 1999, one minute after midnight, in celebration of
the 5th Declaration of the Lacandona, and the 5th year of the Zapatistas, we
distributed what is called "The Disturbance Developer Kit" or DDK, which is
free to anyone if they come to our site. During our actions, many groups
contacted us that wanted to do virtual sit-ins, so we developed this kit
that's quick and easy to put up. It has been used by wide variety of groups
such as Queer Nation, the international animal liberation groups, and
anti-arms trading groups. There's a big action coming this November 30th
against the World Trade
Organization and there is a UK group that is using code based on our DDK
called "The Electro Hippies." Our performance continues with a new acts that
consists of distributing of software.
CF: Does EDT ever coordinate its virtual actions with more traditional forms
of mobilization and protest?
RD: When EDT began the Swarm performance, we tried to theorize a hybrid
action. We wanted to mobilize people online as well as having direct
representation on the ground in the streets. For the upcoming World Trade
Organization protests we're developing different platforms. We're also
working with Freespeech.org and Paper Tiger Television, and the new
independent media groups to send out real streams representing the activities
of the communities of direct action on the ground, so that individuals in
Seattle and outside the city can have information about what is going on that
has not been filtered through the mainstream media. We're going to set up
maps of Seattle so that people can use their Palm Pilots to see what routes
are being blocked by the police. We can also do counter-surveillance.